‘Sonnet 41,’ also known as ‘Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,’ is number forty-one of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six) that are dedicated to a beautiful young man. His identity has never been confirmed but he appears to be either someone that Shakespeare cared deeply about or something conceived of for the purposes of these poems alone.
This particular sonnet is one of three (sonnets 40, 41, and 42) which focuses on the Fair Youth’s betrayal of the speaker. He slept with his mistress when the speaker was absent. In these lines, the speaker forgives the young man. Shakespeare explores themes of betrayal, youth, loss, and lust in ‘Sonnet 41’.
This poem focuses on the speaker forgiving the Fair Youth for his misdeeds. After he slept with the speaker’s mistress the speaker was angry. But now he’s forgiven him. He understands that the youth will be tempted by the young women around him and they by him. He is too beautiful and good to remain chaste.
‘Sonnet 41’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in William Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In this sonnet, the last two lines are used to describe the two bonds that the youth has forcibly broken due to his betrayal.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 41’. These include but are not limited to alliteration and enjambment. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. There are some great examples throughout this poem, for instance, “woman woos” and “woman’s” in line seven and “twofold,” “truth” and “tempting” in lines twelve and thirteen.
Enjambment is another important technique commonly used in poetry. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two as well as that between lines eleven and twelve.
Analysis of Sonnet 41
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet 41,’ the speaker picks back up where he left off in the previous sonnet. He is still addressing the Fair Youth and what he did to wrong him (sleep with his mistress). The speaker refers to this action and others as “pretty wrongs”. They are charming to the speaker, in an annoying sort of way. He realizes that the youth can’t always be true as he’s young and beautiful. When the speaker is away, he is sure to act out and follow temptation. The speaker is placing himself in the youth’s shoes so that he might better understand why the youth did/does act in a particular way.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won;
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 41’, the speaker goes on to say that the youth is “gentle” and therefore many women care for him. He is distinguished and beautiful, therefore the poet understands why he’d give in to lust. The next two lines contain a rhetorical question. The speaker asks, not expecting an answer, who could possibly refuse a woman who wants him?
Ay me, but yet thou might’st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth:
Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me.
In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 41,’ the speaker backtracks somewhat and suggests that maybe the youth could possibly, if he felt like it and was able, stay away from the speaker’s mistress. IT would be better if the youth could keep himself under control, chide his “straying youth”. They are leading the youth into mistakes that might become worse in the future. For now, he has broken two bonds. These are set out in the final couplet of the poem.
After the volta, the speaker informs the youth that he has broken the bond between the speaker’s mistress and himself as well as that between the youth and the speaker. This is something that has happened before and it’s likely going to happen again.